/ Rock Climbing and Spirituality
I wondered whether anyone would like to comment on their understanding or experience of the spirituality of climbing. We often talk about the physicality and the mental discipline needed, but many climbers also talk about their experience of being in the moment or touching something deeper that imparts some meaning to life.
As a focus for discussion, you might like to read the accompanying text.
“Rough quarries, rocks, and hills whose heads touch heaven”
Othello Act 1:3
Rock Climbing and the Spirituality of Sport
I came to climbing late, when my son needed a belayer. Within months I was hooked. What is it about climbing that captures the mind and imagination so powerfully? There is the physicality, the adrenaline rush, the calmness overcoming fear, the satisfaction of reaching the top after an epic struggle, the cameraderie and adventure, coping with all kinds of weather conditions, enjoying all kinds of landscape from crag to sea cliff, sculpted boulder to clean-cut arete. There are so many dimensions which have been well documented in word and image, but there is one undercurrent that also fascinates me and fuels my enjoyment of climbing, and that is the spiritual dimension.
If climbing were simply a physical activity, we might be satisfied with our regular workout down at the indoor climbing wall. While it is enjoyable to climb indoors, most climbers long to go outside. There is something about grappling with the shapes and textures of rock, being part of a landscape that over millennia has been shaped by the carving of glaciers and the attrition of wind and rain, that engages what is deepest in us whether we call it our spirit or our soul. Climbing also has an aesthetic appeal, especially here in Yorkshire, where places like Brimham Rocks are sculpted into shapes that inspired artists such as Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth
This isn’t a new phenomenon. You can trace its origins to the Romantic poets who rebelled against the cultural orthodoxies to find spiritual fulfillment in the landscape of the lakes, or the awe-inspiring sublimities of the Alps. Poets and painters made pilgrimages to the vertiginous Alpine passes for inspiration. The Romantic spirit carried over into the explorations by members of the Alpine Club, and the writings of John Muir who travelled to the Sierra in 1868, moving from his Presbyterian background to discover a new religious dimension in the contemplation of the soaring walls of Yosemite. "No feature here seems more wonderful than the Cathedral itself, a temple displaying Nature's best masonry and sermons in stones." In his ramblings through the Sierras, he was also a pioneer of rock climbing. ‘My First Summer in the Sierra’ and other writings capture the spiritual heart of rock climbing and mountaineering that continues in the writings of many contemporary climbers who strive to find a language for their spiritual experience.
Few climbers would claim to be religious, and many climbers would want to focus more on the practicalities and technicalities of climbing. But some might agree that what impels them to climb is a combination of the mental discipline, the physical flow of movement and the spiritual experience of being taken out of oneself in focussing on the sequence of moves, concentrating all one’s energies of body, mind and spirit on that moment of overcoming the crucial difficulties whether it is 3 or 30 or 3000 metres above the ground.
In my own brief and limited experience of climbing, I find that the discipline and focus required is akin to that of prayer. Climbing has become something of a prayerful activity creating a sense of being part of something bigger and more beautiful. As a Vicar I enjoy both worship and climbing; an ideal Sunday would be spent at St Helen’s in the morning and St anage in the afternoon! Each activity can be enjoyable as well as serious, light-hearted as well as committed. I believe that the same spirit you experience worshipping in a building can be found climbing at a crag, and that God's spirit permeates all matter, including the matrix of rock.
In the past some have separated body and spirit into separate entities, whereas in my view they are interwoven. This isn’t some new version of muscular Christianity, but a conviction that spiritual reality can be apprehended in many different ways by all kinds of people everywhere.
As well as the generous spirit of co-operation and encouragement you find when you go out climbing, one of the aspects you often discover in climbers you meet or read about is their humility. The Biblical proverb can be readily applied to climbing: “Pride comes before a fall, but humility comes before honour”. Humility is a vital quality to have when faced with a challenging route or a daunting problem.
With climbing as with many sports or outdoor activities, in stretching our minds and bodies to the limit, we can discover in ourselves deeper spiritual resources that nourish us and make of our lives something even more beautiful and worthwhile.
Rupert Martin, December 2013
I don't understand why you've copyrighted this on an open forum,
Well I wouldn't refer to what I experience as 'spirituality'. I enjoy the immediate and obvious physical challenges and once you get into the realms of experience that's all obviously highly subjective. I enjoy climbing in a profound way that makes me happy/satisfied - a mixture of the sporting and experiential aspects of the sport plus landscape, activity, challenge. friendships all bound-up in a complex mental appreciation that is essentially part of my psyche I suppose But another part of that same psyche also rejects the concepts of spirituality and religion!
Oh good, another god botherer. It's a dull wet day and I could do with some entertainment.
I'll start: if god really existed it would be necessary to abolish him.
Spiritual or religious?
I think that to have a meaningful discussion on this subject you have to define what you mean by spirituality. Personally I abandoned religion a long time ago, and I see no reason to postulate the existence of any deity - but they can be a handy thing sometimes, to label an idea that is hard to verbalise. I often use the words "Mother Mountain" when I'm talking about my experiences in the hills, but then I don't walk under ladders either.
I think if you're inclined to look at the universe and your place in it, in a certain way, then you're going to find a spiritual aspect in anything you do that inspires passion. There's a whole branch of Indian cuisine that's dedicated to Lord Krishna. I've often thought that Mother Kali, would be an excellent deity for alpinists and winter mountaineers.
The thing is that we live in a vast and generally hostile universe. It's hard not to feel a sense of wonder when you're clinging to the side of a mountain, in the dark, looking up at the milky way. For me it's that sense of awe and wonder that's a major part of what I would call spirituality - That and the feeling of connection that one sometimes gets. - but that's something that some people just have - it's not inherent in either the hills, or the act of climbing them. It's hardly surprising that a climbing vicar would find an expression of his spiritual nature in the act of climbing, but I think that the spirituality inherent in any activity is just a projection of the way a person views the world.
I do relate to some of what you say, but my view of what is 'spiritual' is very different.
Yes, that's part of the mental side (not discipline) of climbing. There are boring mental experiences, like shopping, and there are deep mental experiences that give meaning to life. The birth of a child (I would guess) is one such deep mental experience, and on another level climbing offers experiences that give meaning to our lives.
I too might describe these experiences as "spiritually fulfilling" but I would be using the idea of the spirit or soul as a metaphor to describe a powerful mental experience - not something that is separate to the ongoing conscious experience of life. Powerful experiences - especially ones which are within your control - contribute to one's identity. These deep experiences lay down vivid memories and become part of the story of who we are.
Mental states are generated by the brain. Being absorbed in one's internal world of thoughts, worries and memories is one kind of mental state, one that the brain will generate when there isn't much going on in terms of important sensory input. We can choose to do something that requires us to switch into a different kind of mental state, where we need to have the sensory input turned up to 11 and the internal chatter silenced. Driving fast, snowboarding, and climbing hard are these kind of experience that we seek out to generate that mental state. One can look at the nervous system and see how we react to external stimuli in these situations to alter both the mental state and the physical state (e.g. heart rate up, pupils dilated, blood directed to the muscles and away from the gut, etc). Because the two are not separate. It all has a clear purpose: to keep us alive. The experience of being 'taken out of oneself' is a physical response of neurotransmitters being released into synapses and hormones into the blood that change our physical and mental state into one which is appropriate to survival in that situation.
For me, going soloing at Stanage, can be among the most 'spiritually fulfilling' climbing experiences. That's because I can climb, as you say, in a 'meditative' fashion since I know the routes well and I'm not so pumped up with adrenaline etc as I would be leading a route at my limit. But this because I'm practicing a skill that's taken me years to develop, and as such is an expression of my identity. I have laid down memories on top of memories of that place, of those routes, of those moves. And since I'm 50ft above the deck without a rope on, I'm in that 'in the moment' mental state by biological necessity.
There is no need to invoke anything beyond the physical (and I include in that the neurones in my brain that encode the memories, associations, and feelings that make up my identity and generate my mental state) to describe and understand my experience.
I guess that is exactly what I'm saying. Except that I can be a bit more specific about how they're interwoven - in the miracle of the human brain.
I don't really buy this. You meet all sorts climbing.
Obviously new to UKC
I buy into what you say on one level.
But when I ponder a little deeper, I think '..boring experiences like shopping, birth of a child.. deep experience' I can suppose that the birth of a child isn't always welcomed, and sometimes the shopping might result in a fundamental change in that person's life.
So an apparently trivial action can have major consequences.
You say that 'mental states are generated by the brain' and you go on to describe how self absorption happens when important sensory input is lacking. Yet some people whose lives appear devoid of excitement end up experiencing mental breakdown whilst in this pathological state, and this may lead to them seeing the world 'more spiritually'. So, is there more to this sense of spirituality than thrill seeking?
I think I get what you're saying about finding yourself in the meditative state on climbs, but then, whilst in such 'awakened states, one aspect of it is that I find myself somehow connected more to who may have gone before and what may come after my life has ended. The sense of my personal insignificance is not seen with dread but with a sort of glow of acceptance and connection.
That's the bit I suppose some would argue is no more than an awareness of you own mortality and trying to find comfort in it. I can't say I know.
I'm trying to use language to make sense of it, but sense that my personal beliefs are what matters. If someone else comes along and states something with an air of certainty, then I become very wary of them.
Occasionally the writings of others will evoke something of what I had experienced. Yet if I subsequently spot the same passage broadcast to the world, I find it as revivifying as cold tea subsequently microwaved, like classical musak in a National Trust shop.
Seems to me we're all grasping at smoke. There is a limit to logical argument.
I was just giving my take on the trad climbing experience as being 'spiritual' to mean a powerful experience that's important for me. Important for psychological reasons and for the sensations brought about by the brain and body, not involving anything supernatural.
There are countless other types of experience that I could describe as spiritual, for example looking up at the milky way from a glacier or the experience of a piece of art, or something that is reached through introspection. It's just that whatever the experience, that's what it is, an experience unique to our conscious internal world - but we might label the powerful, important psychological experiences that make up our identity as 'spiritual', while we quickly forget the banal ones.
I prefer Basil Fawlty myself:
O'Reilly: I'm tellin' you, if the good lord...
Basil Fawlty: ...Is mentioned once more, I shall move you closer to him.
OTOH we have good words and concepts to describe them already, I don't think many people see sex as a spiritiual experience but it meets those criteria, if sex brings you closer to god you're doing it wrong or you're Aleister Crowley.
It's one of those analogies that people forget is an analogy and start using as a definition in itself.
I think that Pascal said all that need be said about man's relations with the Universe. I am very conscious of the universe/ nature when I mountaineer but the Universe is sublimely unaware of my existence
Thanks for your thoughtful reply. I agree with much of what you write, especially 'the miracle of the human brain' in all its intricacy. The question is what animates our minds. The word spirit comes from the word for breath and the breath of life is for me something more than just oxygen.
Thank you for your thought-provoking post. Although I am profoundly anti-religious for reasons that are primarily to do with the past enslavement of the masses by the Christian church, I am entirely happy with the concept of spirituality. When believers invoke God, it is upwards they gaze, and when I seek a spiritual uplift, it is to a mountaintop that I turn.
I think there is a difference between the meditative calm and sense of being in the moment that I and others derive from skiing, snowboarding and climbing, which just happen to take place in the mountains, and the profoundly uplifting experience of reaching a mountain summit, which is a combination of satisfaction at overcoming a challenge and of experiencing the world fall away all around you as you accomplish those final strides to the top. I liken it to an altered state, but then I am from a generation whose church was the Hacienda. No doubt dopamine plays its part.
Whatever your beliefs, what matters is that you can take pleasure in the activity and the environment. Call it spirituality, the thrill of survival, endorphins, Romanticism or God, we are truly blessed by the mountains.
I got brought up in a Born again Christian household, the other kids from church that I used to hang out with were mint, and countless times I did the whole Jesus come into my life biz, but it just didn't work for me.
Later after a stint in a green suit, I got involved in the clubbing scene. Plymouth 95 - 2002, and many of those nights down the warehouse, academy, and sound factory, were very religious for me, I don't think it was the drugs so much as the collective consciousness of the massive.
The spiritually of the hills for me is much different, a closeness to the awe of nature
The word spirit comes from the word for breath and the breath of life is for me something more than just oxygen.
I guess it is for all of us conscious creatures.
That said it all for me. We are intimidated, amazed and joyful at the very act of living, and you never feel more alive than when you are teetering on the knife edge between life and death.
I've never really got ho one feels less alive?;-)
I must be doing this rock climbing malarky all wrong.
Even when soloing (and I do that quite a bit!) I've never once felt that "I was teetering on the knife edge between life and death"
One of the factors that led me to try climbing in the 1970s was my Dad's talk of the one or two times he went out with the kids when he did a couple of stints working at Hollowford (I was a child of the parsonage). I get a great spiritual uplift from being "out there", and it can make me feel closer to God (sometimes too bloody close, frankly, but that's risk for you). If I look for something like that, I find it. It's what humans do. Others I know have a far more secular and probably rational take on life but they wouldn't swap their experiences of outdoor climbing for anything. Connected to a wider world, sometimes detached from self and even transcendental, but entirely personal.
Perhaps in a sport in which we can participate without competing, or when competition is focussed on being the best one can be and not generally on beating an opponent we are more open to "spiritual" experience because the brain/mind focusses in a different way.
Good point, well made......unless its for climbing gear, nice food or cooking pans
My kids mother once, completely seriously, used the phrase "Wild, uninhibited shopping"
I'd go along with that.
But maybe it's no more than the feelgood factor generated by application of skilled technique. Maybe, as the majority will not win in competition, the striving thing gets in the way for most of us.
However, there's a photo' of Seb Coe, winning in the Olympics, which is generally interpreted that he is experiencing a state of ecstasy. So maybe competition isn't the issue in relation to 'spirituality'.
Perhaps it's all just the experience of a lack of what psychologists describe as cognitive dissonance. You're doing what you will your body to do.
Is that like shoplifting?
Maybe it's just shopping?
Like people talk about 'wild' swimming and 'wild' camping.
It made me think there was a secret world out there, that I could never enter.....
You're right. C.of.E love this form of spirituality, as some of those doing it will need a payday loan from Wonga at 100000% interest from which those rich christians benefit by investing in!